B.C.'s Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett is traveling through Alaska in hopes to ease tensions from residents there caused by a tailings pond dam bust at Mount Polley over a year ago.

The disaster not only sent 24 million cubic meters of contaminated water and mining waste into creeks and rivers near Likely, B.C., but it also raised concerns from Alaskan residents and environmental groups who say they don't have a meaningful role in the prevention of a similar disaster which could affect their state.

"We don't have any voice and British Columbia and Canada have no accountability. We're taking all of the risks of these large-scale mining projects and receiving none of the benefits," said Heather Hardcastle, a commercial fisher in Alaska.

Bennett is currently undergoing his week long tour of the northernmost U.S state which began on Sunday. He spoke to Chris Brown of CBC Radio's Early Edition about the trip and the need to repair any damaged relationships with the residents there.  

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The damage caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C. has caused Alaskan residents concerned about proposed future projects located near their state. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

How do you respond to that issue that the people of Alaska don't have a voice [in B.C.'s mining projects]?

One of the incorrect impressions that has been established in southeast Alaska over the past year is that Alaskans don't have a seat at the table, so to speak. The Alaskan government has been working very, very closely with us on this trip.

They actually do have a very important role in the assessments of mining projects in the transboundary waters and we've given them an additional role in terms of the permitting of mines and the ongoing monitoring of mines.

That's one of the reasons we're here, to talk to them about what else we can do to give the state of Alaska more access.

Heather Hardcastle represents some of the conservation organizations. We have to figure out how we can give those folks and the tribal interests here more direct access into the information that they need to make their minds up as to whether or not we're doing a good job in B.C. She's not all wrong, but she's not all right either.

I'm wondering what kind of reception you had in Alaska. They raise concerns about our regulations and look at incidents like Mount Polley. Do they have a good reason to be concerned?

They have every right to be concerned. From their perspective, they have a quality of life here that is pretty spectacular.

The proposed mines in B.C. being upstream of all of that; yes of course they have every right to want information and want some comfort that what happened at Mount Polley was an exception and not part of a pattern, so that's why we're here.

What kind of comfort are you giving them?

It's never just one thing. Part of it is trust and part of it is coming here.

Secondly, providing good, factual scientific information about how we do things in B.C.

It's not easy to build a mine in B.C. and it shouldn't be easy. I think we made some progress yesterday and last night.

We have a full day today [and the rest of the week]. We're going to get beat up a little bit probably by some of the groups that we're going to meet with but that's fair enough.

If we leave here with people realizing that we also care about the natural environment in B.C. and we're not going to take chances with the environment then I think we've moved this thing in the right direction.

How do you convince Alaskans that what we're doing here is enough?

Spending time with as many different people as you possibly can, exposing your professional officials from government who are the scientists… [and] making sure the Alaskans see that 'hey these guys are just like us, they care about the natural environment and they've got some good, vigorous processes in place.'

You read a lot of comments in the Alaska media about B.C. — like Heather Hardcastle saying we're not accountable. That's not true. We are accountable and we have risk to our own environment in B.C. It's a matter of making that case in a diplomatic way and I think we can do it.


This interview was condensed and edited. To hear the full interview, click that audio labelled: B.C. seeking to repair damaged relations with Alaska after Mount Polley disaster.